Fake universities

Currently some of the most advertised "online universities" are Eton University, Notting Hill College, Steadford University, Midtown University and Mayfield University. These are completely bogus higher education institutions. They have no relevant accreditation. Instead, they claim accreditation by various non-official bodies. But they are not the only ones. This is a game where names change fast. The only thing that remains is a trail of completely worthless degrees.

A little bit of history

„Diploma mills“ or „degree mills“ have long been around in the US. In 1980s, the authorities even launched the extensive Operation Dipscam to wash them out. However, it is only with the advent of the internet age that this kind of business really took off.

In probably the most notorious case, roughly in the years 2000-2012 Belford University apparently collected tens of millions of dollars in tuition fees. Where was this institution located? Nowhere really. It was a virtual place operated by Salem Kureshi, a Pakistani, out of his Karachi flat. He promoted Belford and other virtual education institutions through a group of websites. The websites gave as the official university address a mailbox in Texas, but diplomas were sent from Dubai. And what did you have to do to earn a doctorate degree at Belford? Nothing much, fill out a short questionnaire that "proved" you had "life experience" and pay something like 250 USD. Kureshi was gradually forced to close down most of his operations and might even pay damages, as required by a recent lawsuit. Undeterred, he is currently involved in another scam, Rochville University.

Operations such as this one are surprisingly easy, as the hunger for a quick degree is big. Often, fairly senior people are found to be padding their CVs with diplomas that just get mailed over. Iran’s recent vice-president Mohammad Reza Rahimi used a Belford University degree on his CV. Former Swedish Minister for Employment Sven Otto Littorin at one point boasted a degree from Fairfax University, another diploma mill. Babar Awan, a one time Pakistan’s minister of justice, used a degree from Monticello University, a notorious outfit operating out of Hawaii that was closed down in 2000.

In April 2013, members of the UK Conservative Party invited one Jonas Himmelstrand to give a keynote speech at a conference on childcare in the UK Parliament. He was presented as a an expert from Sweden. His speech (with recommendation on how to take care of very young children) was approvingly covered by the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, two prominent newspapers. However, then, journalists from another publication, the weekly The Observer, started querying his credentials. And they found out that he never studied at an accredited institution. Rather, he introduced himself as “the founder of the Mireja Institute and a "faculty member" of the Neufeld Institute, founded by Canadian psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld.” When later pressed by journalists, he “conceded that Mireja was a ‘one-man outfit’. The Neufeld Institute says on its website that it invites people to become ‘faculty members’ if they complete an advanced course in home-schooling and a two-year internship at its ‘virtual campus’, at a cost of more than £8,000.”

How to spot fake universities?

First, check for obvious signs of fraud. Mostly, it is very easy. For example, US higher education institutions are allowed to use the ending .edu in their web address. If an "online university" claims to have US accreditation, a "US licence" or whatever, and does not have an .edu address, just stay clear. In the same way, no UK higher education institution would operate with anything else, but an address ending with .ac.uk. If it uses .com, .org, or similar, do not talk to them.

Second, if you are suspicious, check the lists of accredited institutions for the country in which the university is supposedly domiciled. For example, in the US, the Federal Trade Commission warns against signing up with unaccredited institutions and flags a list of safe, properly accredited ones.

Three, you can also simply check out the credentials of the university yourself. On our portal, we provide the details of accrediting bodies in the US, the UK and other countries.

Do not be fooled by tricks, fake universities will claim "accreditation" by various made-up names. They may sound very official and serious, but unless it is the exact name of an accrediting body, it does not mean anything. Anybody can register a company that names itself, for example, the International Commission for Higher Education (ICFHE) or Quality Assurance Commission (QAC). Again, do not be fooled by such an easy trick!

The grey zone: accredited but with dubious record

To make things more complicated, in some countries, the accreditation process can be relatively lax. Some universities acquire accreditation even though their programmes cannot even with the kindest of intentions be regarded as proper higher education. If you ever regularly browsed US websites, you must have come across a banner for University of Phoenix. It is the biggest for-profit higher education institution in the US, with enrollment peaking at 600,000 in 2010. Unlike those outfits operated purely virtually, Phoenix University actually does have a large number of facilities and you need to stay some time with it to earn a degree.

The institution is owned by Appollo Group, a New York Stock Exchange-listed, S&P500 company with market capitalization of over $5 bln. Appollo owns other for-profit education institutions in the US and abroad. Phoenix University has a history of disputes with the US government over its practices. Despite this, it continues to operate and is actually one of the biggest institutional beneficiaries of US federal aid for students.

Another well-publicized case concerns four higher education institutions operated by Education Management Corporation, the second larget for-profit educational group in the US. It was recently sued by the US Department of Justice and several federal states for fraud in relation to operations relating to four schools: Art Institute, Argosy University, Brown Mackie College and South University.

Another university which is accredited, but has been sued for fraud in relation to the quality of its enrollment process and programmes is Kaplan University. Kaplan University, just like Phoenix, is very well-known for aggressive online marketing and extensive online courses.

Unlike in the previously cited cases, a degree from Phoenix or Kaplan at the moment has some official value, for example allowing you to list its titles with your name on US government documents. But how serious they look on a CV is a different story.


Bogus higher education institutions are not just the feature of US life, of course. For example, in the UK, tens of thousands sign up annually for courses whose diplomas are not better than anything you print out of your home printer. Sometimes, the bogus colleges exploit the desire for foreigners to obtain students visas for the UK. In one notable example, one institution, the National Distance Learning Centre, collected some 16m GBP in fees in the years when it was operating, 1999-2001. In another, Cambridge College of Learning, an outfit of three classrooms based in East London, was charging up to 4000 GBP per course. When the police raided the premises, its students got their visas cancelled and they were sent back home.

The moral here is clear: always check the background of the institutions you are signing up with - and paying money to!

- UniOrbis